Micheal Towell




Micheal Towell




Micki Towell


Evelyn Laughman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Del Thomas


Warrenton, Oregon


Micki Towell


Evelyn Laughman (EL): Good afternoon. My name is Evelyn Laughman, and today's date is February 9, 2009, and the time is 4:15 p.m. I'm conducting an interview with Micki Towell in Warrenton, Oregon, for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories Project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Oregon State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Micki Towell is a quilter and is a member of the Astoria Chapter. Good morning, or afternoon [laughs.] I apologize. Micki, tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Micki Towell (MT): I made this one after I went to Malawi, Africa, on a teaching mission, and I spent a year researching quilting squares because I wanted to use traditional quilting squares that would express my trip. So, I looked through many, many books looking for squares that would express it. In addition to that I wanted to do the animals that I saw so I have a darting bird since we went on safari for a while and saw lots of birds. I have a lion, and an elephant, and a hippo, and a giraffe, which were wild animals we saw on safari. And I have a goat because there were goats everywhere. And these are paper pieced. And the other pieces are mostly pieced. I have one called "Annie's Choice." When I grew up, I was always called Annie. And that's Annie's choice because the trip was my choice. And this one is called "Milky Way," because the Milky Way was incredible over there. The stars were just unbelievable. And this one is the Star of Friendship, and I made a lot of friends over there. This is called "Cross within a Cross," which was part of our mission. This is Around the World, the traditional piece Around the World. And this is "The Right Hand of Friendship" and this is Corn and Beans, which is a traditional square Corn and Beans and that is what we ate over there. [EL: Oh.] I also have a sun because it was always sunny. And I made up a globe to show Africa in the center. And I have two pieces that I bought over there and brought back. They were hand done batiks. And the border is African that I bought at the market over there. And I bought enough so that I could make a skirt because over there they always wear skirts and just the wrap-around, more like an apron. Actually, they wear something underneath it, use it to wipe your hands or whatever, because they don't have napkins. And I have a path going through that describes my journey into Malawi, in Africa, and out of Malawi and into Zambia. The whole thing was a challenge because the squares were different sizes. I had done a quilt once that had squares of different sizes, but it was preplanned. I did the squares I wanted to do and then I laid them out to see how they would fit. And I was a teacher so math should be okay but it's not. So, I had to add strips so that the pieces would fit. All that would have been fine except that the strip through--the journey through threw me off. So, it was too big for my wall board, so it was on the floor, and I kept rearranging it. And then finally got brave enough to sew it together, and I actually ended up, instead of doing lines across, because they were different sizes, I had to do chunks and around. And the final square was actually right here in the middle. And it all came together into a rectangle. It was pretty miraculous.

EL: And it turned out just great. [MT laughs.] Just gorgeous. Well, what a story, but you're glad you did that.

MT: Yeah, even though it was torture. [both laugh.] So, I hand, no, machine quilted it. I did free-form machine quilting. Some of my team members wanted to know why I hadn't made any chickens because there are chickens everywhere, so I quilted chickens in. Every path walked there was a rooster with some hens so there were chickens everywhere. And then I printed a picture of my team and then I made a label with the names of the squares.

EL: Well, thank you for bringing it today. I'm speechless. [laughs.]

MT: It's probably the most personal of all my quilts.

EL: Very personalized. So that leads me to the next question. What special meaning does this quilt have for you? You've said some of that.

MT: Yes.

EL: Do you want to add a bit more?

MT: It reminds me of my friends in Africa and my trip to Africa. I can look at it and travel back to the market. It was a learning experience - both the trip and the quilt.

EL: And so, do you make other quilts, Micki?

MT: I do.

EL: And why did you choose this particular quilt to bring to the interview today?

MT: This is the most personal.

EL: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

MT: That's been said. [laughs.]

EL: After taking a look at these squares, I think your math must be much better than you give yourself credit for. [inaudible.] Are you a self-taught quilter?

MT: I've taken a lot of classes.

EL: How do you use this quilt?

MT: You know I don't. I have it on a rack where I hang quilts and it stays folded on there until I take it off and look at it.

EL: There are some quilts definitely that are usable and [both speak at the same time.]

MT: Although it is lap sized, I don't use it as a lap quilt.

EL: It's lovely, it really is. Do you ever sleep under quilts?

MT: I do.

EL: I guess I never asked you what your plans for this quilt was.

MT: I have none. It was a doing quilt.

EL: Well, let me think. [pauses.] Tell me about your interest in quilt-making.

MT: My favorite part is the fabric - choosing the fabric, and piecing. Once I get a quilt top done, I've pretty much gotten past the part that I really like so I often send out the big quilts to be quilted. I like buying the fabric. I like washing the fabric. I like ironing the fabric. I like cutting up the fabric and piecing it, and seeing the finished product as far as the quilt top goes. And then I want somebody to finish it.

EL: Well, you certainly do more than I do with quilts. I enjoy them but I have never taken on anything quite that detailed. At what age did you start quilts making?

MT: Maybe 40. [both speak at the same time.] I took a quilt class for using quilts in the classroom. The woman who taught it was an incredibly fine quilter. She did beautiful things. She made us each make pieces of quilts and do a quilt. And then I used that in the classroom. We made quilts in the classroom after that. Then when my granddaughter was born, I made her a quilt.

EL: Hopefully she learns to quilt from you.

MT: Yes, she made her first quilt.

EL: Already.

MT: Yeah.

EL: Wonderful.

MT: And her mother started quilting. Her mother's mother has started quilting. Now the four of us can do quilt shops together.

EL: Oh, that's perfect. Something that you all enjoy doing together. Do you give your quilts as gifts, Micki?

MT: I do.

EL: You just mentioned that you have other quilters in your family.

MT: My mother quilted, and my grandmother quilted.

EL: So that goes back quite a ways.

MT: I have a quilt of my mother's that she made like in the thirties. And I have a quilt of my grandmother's that she made when she was a child. That quilt is beautiful. Very, very much used. Very fragile.

EL: Some of the small, what we would call doll quilts, they used for baby quilts back in the early 1900's. They never got large like crib sized are now. I think maybe they used one for bassinets, or something?

MT: Yeah, yeah. And this one is from maybe the 1880's.

EL: Something to cherish for sure. From whom did you learn to quilt?

MT: Well, I've taken lots of lessons. A lot of them up at Anna Lena's, and from a quilt shop in Wheeler and from a quilt shop in Cannon Beach.

EL: That's nice. After you'd retired? How many hours a week would you say that you quilt now?

MT: [pauses.] Maybe fourteen.

EL: I believe you said you belong to a sewing, or quilting, group. [both speak at the same time.]

MT: We're not really a quilting guild, but we sort of quilt, some of us do other stitchery.

EL: Oh, that's nice. You don't try to limit to just one type of.

MT: Right. We do try to make a quilt together to give to the Extended Care Unit at the hospital, for the Hospice patients.

EL: Oh, that's nice.

MT: So we do that together. Even the ones who normally don't quilt do that.

EL: Comradery. What is your very first quilt memory? [clock strikes. laughs.]

MT: I have no idea. [pauses. clock ticking.]

EL: I would imagine some of your mother's [both speak at the same time.]

MT: Right and I played with my grandmother's quilt, using it as a doll quilt, when I was little.

EL: Are there any other quilt makers among your family or friends? You know what, I think we've already discussed that, didn't we? My apologies. I've got some notes here and I guess I was getting a little ahead of myself. How does quilt making impact your family?

MT: They have to put up with threads all over the house. [laughs.] And my kids have to keep taking quilts when I give them to them.

EL: I bet they like that though. [laughs.]

MT: And my nieces get, you know, everybody. You have to. [cuckoo and clock strikes.] And I have given some to some special friends. My granddaughter sleeps in my sewing room when she comes so she is surrounded by fabrics. [laughs.] That impacts her probably. I used to give her snippets, little pieces of fabric, and let her arrange them. From the time she was 2, she liked arranging. Her mother is very artistic. She liked arranging the snippets.

EL: Well, she might have that artistic ability. And how old is she now?

MT: She's eleven.

EL: That's probably growing some quilting memories in her right now. Tell me if you've ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

MT: I did. I made one. I made a quilt while I was taking chemo for my breast cancer. A pattern came in the mail that looked very easy. And I just used fabrics that I had. It turned out to be a huge quilt 'cause I kept making squares. It's different colors of flowers 'cause I just kept using the fabric I had, since I didn't feel like shopping. But you know, in your garden you have interesting-colored flowers. So, I did that, and when I finished radiation, I put it all together and I had a friend who didn't quilt help me sandwich it, and I'm still hand quilting it. I decided it needed to be hand quilted. It's only been five years.

EL: That one didn't get sent away.

MT: No. [laughs.]

EL: Do you have an amusing experience that occurred from your quilt making? [pauses.] You've mentioned that quilt making is quite pleasing to you.

MT: It's very satisfying. I think it must be like an artist painting a picture. It's very pleasing to picture what's something's going to look like, and then do it. I think especially because I don't tend to use the same fabric as I see in pictures. I like to choose my own. I think with every quilt you find something you wish you'd done differently. You grow while you do it. It might just be part of me that I didn't know existed, since I can't draw or paint.

EL: Well, you certainly can quilt. You mentioned an art group. Was that at Anna Lena's?

MT: There was a class there. There was a woman--

EL: A quilting group?

MT: A woman who taught a class called "Scrap Builders."

EL: And you belonged to that quilting group? Have advances in technology influenced your work?

MT: Well, in that I use the computer to make my labels. [laughs.] That's all. I don't have a long arm.

EL: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

MT: Piecing is what I like.

EL: Could you describe the studio or the place where you kind of create in?

MT: It's a bedroom, but when I retired from teaching, my staff gave me a sewing cabinet, a Koala that opens all out and takes up almost the whole room. And when I want to use it as a guest room, I fold things up and put it away. I have two large wall armoires that I store things in.

EL: That should last you for a few more years, huh? [laughs.] Tell me how you balance your time.

MT: When I manage to have an afternoon at home, I quilt. I'm very busy doing other things, so I consider it a gift if I can sew. The fabric I'm working with right now is very pretty.

EL: Do you use a design wall?

MT: Yes. I have an old mattress pad that is stuck on the closet door.

EL: Does this help enhance your creative process?

MT: It does. I made one quilt that was all swirls. I had to have it up there and I had to be able to rearrange it and walk away and look. And I made a watercolor quilt that I had to do the same thing. You put it up there and then you go away and then look again and you move a few things. Then you go away and then come back again. I consider balance. Oh, there's a technology I use I use my digital camera. I take a picture because if I rearrange it and then I think, 'Oh no, I liked it the other way,' I can look at the picture and put it back the way it was. I do that. I spread it out on the bed.

EL: What do you think makes a really great quilt?

MT: My favorite quilt that I have ever seen was at Sisters [Oregon Quilt Show.]. The person had pieced the background looking out their window, and so it was a lot of different greens. Then they had opened the space by overlapping things and then put quail in. The quail would come out of the shadows and into the sunshine, and so the quails were different colors, depending on how they were. They walked into the quilt from where they were off the edges. And the breaking of the frame I thought was genius.

EL: It sounds spectacular.

MT: And if I'd have had $5,000, I would have bought it. [laughs.]

EL: Would you call that artistically powerful?

MT: Yes. And I don't have the ability to be able to do that easily. The swirly one I made, which I gave to an artist friend of mine, I was able to do that somewhat: have the colors move through. The other one I saw with the colors moving through was at a national show of Indian quilters. That one blew my mind, the way the colors moved through. I stood there thinking she couldn't possibly have planned it. It must have happened while she was doing it. There was no way. Surely, she couldn't have planned it. It had to have evolved as she did it, because of the way the light and the color moved through. That's what I find the most difficult.

EL: Mesmerizing, huh? What do you think makes the quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

MT: Something like that: bringing a traditional way of doing things, and it was done in a modern way.

EL: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

MT: The courage to try something different and the eye to be able to see color. I have a friend, who's very good at the piecing and quilting, but she's not good with color and so her quilts are less than striking. I mean they are beautifully done but she doesn't have a handle--I take one piece of fabric--I carry it with me to a lot of different stores and try to ask a lot of different clerks because some clerks are really, really good at color. I often end up going down to Cannon Beach, and having Karen, one of the clerks in there, help me find the fabric I need to match. People laugh at me because I shopped with a friend and had a fabric, we liked but I told her she couldn't use that fabric because it was too bossy. It would have taken over the quilt. She'll get there. She's just starting.

EL: You've got a great artistic ability. Whose works are you drawn to, and why?

MT: Probably something untraditional. Someone who takes a traditional piece and does something--

EL: Has there been some artist who have influenced you over the years?

MT: Yes. Amy Burnett. She's an artist from the Puget Sound area. She layers her paintings, and I think they come out looking like a quilt. If I could make a quilt like hers, I think that's kind of what I'm looking for. And not like this at all. [laughs.]

EL: Well, there's different varieties you can do. How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

MT: I'm not good at hand quilting. I have arthritis and I'm not good at hand quilting and machine quilting is wonderful.

EL: Longarm quilting?

MT: As I say, I like to do the top and I like somebody to do the longarm quilting.

EL: Why is quilt making important in your life? Like, you found your niche. In what way do your quilts reflect your community or region?

MT: I'm not sure they do.

EL: Well, you're from Clatsop County. Have any of your quilts--

MT: I made a Lewis and Clark quilt.

EL: I remember that.

MT: Two Lewis and Clark quilts actually. [both speak the same time.] I made one so I could keep it myself and the other one got auctioned off at the museum. But other than that, one--

EL: What do you think of the importance of quilts in American life?

MT: I think they have such an important role in history in this country, especially for women.

EL: The good old sewing bees that they had many years ago.

MT: My mother's quilt has fabric in it that a cousin that I haven't met--sent me a picture of my mother and I'd never seen the dress she had on, but the fabric is in the quilt. That was pretty cool.

EL: Very nice. In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America. I guess we did kind of talk about that a little bit.

MT: Right.

EL: How do you think quilts can be used?

MT: Oh, I think they should be used. I have a poem that I send with my baby quilts [cuckoo clock.] a poem, someone gave it to me. It says, 'It's okay to chew on your quilt, and it's okay to spit up on your quilt,' and I think they should be used. And the reason I like machine quilting is so you can really use them. Although the quilt that I made that I sleep under is hand quilted so it's holding up all right.

EL: Do your think quilts can be preserved for the future?

MT: [inaudible.]

EL: Time is just kind of flying by. It's been wonderful visiting with you today about your quilts. What has happened to the quilts that you have made for relatives, friends, or family?

MT: They use them, and I have photos of babies wrapped in my quilts. They're being used.

EL: Yes, history. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today? [laughs.] Well, Micki, is there anything else that you'd like to add to this interview? I'd like to thank Micki Towell for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 4:50, on February 9th, 2009. Thank you very much, this has been a great treat to see your quilt and hear your stories.


“Micheal Towell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1951.